By Kevin Connelly
and Peter H. MILLIKEN
The Sharon and Brookfield communities are mourning after losing three residents — two Sharon High School football players and a Brookfield father, in a head-on collision that also injured four others late Friday night.
The deadly head-on crash between the Mazda SUV carrying four Sharon players and a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck carrying the father and two young boys occurred on a slight bend in the Shenango Valley Freeway, just west of the Oakland Avenue Viaduct at 10:05 p.m. Friday.
Cory Swartz, 18, who was driving the SUV, and Evan Gill, 17, both of Sharon and both high school seniors, were pronounced dead at the scene by Mercer County Coroner Brad McGonigle. The driver of the pickup, John Zdelar Jr., 50, of Brookfield, was pronounced dead at 10:52 p.m. at Sharon Regional Health System.
Injured in the crash were Cory’s passengers, twin brothers Craig and Gregg Osmon, also senior players, who were transported to Sharon Regional and then to St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown, where they underwent surgery. St. Elizabeth would not release conditions on the boys because they are minors.
Also injured were the two children in the truck, Evan Wallace, 10, and Blake Yenderak, 12, both of Brookfield. Evan was taken to UPMC Children’s Hospital, and Blake was treated at Sharon
Regional, then released.
UPMC said late Saturday night that Evan is in good condition.
According to Sharon police, Cory, Evan Gill and the Osmons were returning from watching a playoff game at Hickory High School Stadium when the SUV crossed the median strip and struck the oncoming pickup.
Sharon Police Chief Michael J. Menster said preliminary indications do not show that alcohol, drugs or texting were factors in the crash.
Firefighters had to extricate victims from both vehicles. Ambulances transported some of them to the hospital, and three medical helicopters landed at the Sharon High stadium to transport other victims.
Besides Sharon police and firefighters, a Brookfield Fire Department rescue truck, Hermitage and Southwest Regional police, Sharon Street Department personnel, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Sharon school officials responded to the scene. The road was closed until 3:30 a.m.
Speaking late Saturday, Sharon football coach Jim Wildman said, “I’ve done this for a long time, and I haven’t read the chapter yet that explains how to deal with this. It was much more difficult than I ever imagined.”
Wildman, who’s in his first season at Sharon, but has been coaching for 26 years, awaited his team’s arrival at the school Saturday morning. He said many of the players had already heard about the collision through news reports and various social media outlets.
The hardest part, he said, was seeing the reaction of the players who hadn’t heard of their teammates’ deaths before they arrived and showed up thinking they were getting on a bus to go play their football game.
“The emotion initially in the locker room was 50 players and a number of adults taking their turns sobbing,” Wildman said.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association initially canceled the Division 10 playoff game between Sharon and Girard (Pa.) that was scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday. Wildman said there was no way they could have gotten on a bus and played a game Saturday afternoon.
“When we met with the team this morning, we didn’t talk football,” Michael Calla, Sharon School District’s acting superintendent, said Saturday. “We offered support and whatever other help they needed through this tough time.”
Wildman and a group of seniors went to the hospital to be with their injured teammates and were returning to Sharon when athletic director Paul Torr contacted Wildman about the PIAA’s offer to play the game at a later date.
“We called the remaining seniors to gather their thoughts,” Wildman said. “It was a resounding yes. They wanted to play.”
Calla said they left the decision of whether to reschedule the game up to the players and families.
“We have a lot of respect for this group of kids and the leadership of the senior class,” he said.
The game has been rescheduled for Monday at 7 p.m. at Erie Veterans Stadium. Wildman said he feels it will be a good way of honoring their fallen teammates.
“Kids are tougher than adults, generally, and tend to rebound very well,” Wildman said.
School officials said they are making grief counselors available for those needing to speak to them. A vigil is planned for 5:30 p.m. today at the high school stadium.
This is the second incident this year involving the death of a Sharon High School athlete. Leangelo Ford, 17, was a member of the Tigers’ basketball team when he was shot and killed in January.